It’s funny to think that there was a time before T Buckets. As with all things, though, the fad had to start somewhere. The Ford Model T is, in many ways, the original hot rod. But in the ‘50s just taking off its fenders and upgrading a flathead wasn’t doing it anymore. We’d just won a war, after all.
It was time for something more extreme. And that’s where Norm Grabowski comes in. His is the car credited with starting the T Bucket craze in the ‘50s thanks to its numerous appearances on TV, in film, and in glossy magazines.
Fresh out of the military in 1952, Norm bought himself a ’31 Model A Pickup with a V8 and no fenders for the princely sum of $100. He wasn’t satisfied with the look of the thing, though, so he immediately fitted the body from a ’22 Model T touring onto it I suppose you could say that’s where the trouble started.
The look still wasn’t quite right, so Grabowski shortened the pickup bed then cut the frame six inches ahead of the crossmember and reattached it under the frame rails, lifting the back end. All of which helped with the stance. But it still wasn’t quite right. You know how artists are.
He extended the front by five or so inches and added a suicide spring mount. He added hydraulic brakes (ooOooh) and improved the front springs.
And since this was the ’50s, the original V8 wouldn’t quite do. So he chucked it and fitted the engine from a ’52 Cadillac instead. On top was a 3-71 blower and a Top Loader transmission from a ’39 Zephyr.
As you might be able to tell, Grabowski wasn’t one to leave well enough alone so over the coming years he made more and more modifications eventually sending it to Valley Custom in Burbank, California to have a leaned-back windshield fitted.
That led to its first TV appearance on an episode of The Ford Television Theatre (fun fact: this is the series that Ronald and Nancy [then Davis] Reagan first appeared onscreen together) called “Mr. Kagle and the Babysitter.” The car had some more success onscreen, but an onset accident convinced him that actors and stunt drivers weren’t to be trusted with his baby, so he continued to let the car go on camera on the condition that he be the one driving it.
Grabowski then decided to paint his Dodge Royal Blue and asked Dean Jeffries to paint some flames on it. He also removed the blower and replaced it with a four-carb Horne intake manifold that had four Stromberg 97s on it. This might be its most famous configuration because it’s in this guise that it ended up on an ABC series called 77 Sunset Strip.
The car was driven by a character called Kookie, a handsome parking attendant played by Edd Byrnes who was immortalized in the song “Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb,” which—get ready—because you’re about to hear it in all its weird proto-rock bubblegum glory.
The part turned out to be a big deal for the car. Big enough that it is, to this day, known as Kookie’s Kar. Equally important to the legend of the car, though, was its full-page photograph in LIFE magazine’s April 1957 edition.
Grabowski, as we’ve established, refused to settle and in 1957 decided to sell the car for $3,000 to Jim Street, whose Estate is selling the car at Mecum’s Original Spring Classic on May 15-19. That wasn’t a bad return for Grabowski whose initial investment was worth about $1,000 in 2018 money and got the equivalent of $25,000 for the car.
Street, it turns out, didn’t just want to preserve a piece of hot rodding history—after all, they were making it. So he painted the car Rose Pearl with Candy Red flames and installed white leather seats. Some time in the mid-‘60s he added dual slicks, dual headlamps, dual superchargers, dual steps, zoomies, and the high bucket seats you see in the car now.
After that, as he’d done before, he lost interest in showing the car off to people and for nearly 50 years now the car has been hidden away in Street’s garage. The car’s fame, though, and its many onscreen appearances led to a T Bucket craze that even outstripped the supply of Model T bodies—fiberglass bodies became a necessity.
And you—yes you!—can now buy the car that started it all off. The car is offered at no reserve as part of the Jim Street Collection at Mecum’s May Indy Auction at the Indianapolis State Fairgrounds, along with a some other great stuff, so you might even get a deal.